I was operating in the Bien Hoa area, just north of Saigon, during the Tet Offensive in January 1968. I heard about the battle at Huế but had no idea that it lasted as long as it did (24 days with a long aftermath). Nor did I know of the high number of casualties. It was only in reading Bowden’s book that I understood that it was the bloodiest battle of the Vietnam war.
Bowden scatters the number of casualties during the battle of Huế throughout his text, but according to Wikipedia, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam losses were 452 killed and 2,123 wounded, while U.S. losses were 216 killed and 1,584 wounded. North Vietnamese losses are less clear. The North Vietnamese Department of Warfare gives figures of 2,400 killed and 3,000 wounded during the battle between 30 January and 28 March 1968. A North Vietnamese document captured by the South Vietnamese stated that 1,042 troops had been killed in the city proper and that several times that number had been wounded. The Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) gave figures of 5,133 North Vietnamese killed at Huế.
The number of civilian casualties is open to question. At least 844 civilians were killed and 1,900 wounded during the battle, and 4,856 civilians and captured South Vietnamese Army personnel were executed by the North Vietnamese or went missing during the battle according to the South Vietnamese government. Eighty percent of the city was destroyed and 116,000 civilians out of the pre-battle population of 140,000 were made homeless.
The attack on Huế came as a complete surprise in part because the U.S. was focused on Khe Sanh, close to the western end of the DMZ. The battle there began on 21 January 1968 and lasted for 77 days. Westmoreland and other top military commanders believed that the North Vietnamese were trying to recreate the battle of Điện Biên Phủ during which the French were finally defeated in 1954. The attacks at Huế and other locations during the Tet Offensive were seen as attempts by the North Vietnamese to force the U.S. to divert its forces. Khe Sanh, like the battle of Dak To in the western highlands during the fall of 1967, was a major battle. But neither approached the size and ferocity of Huế.